Is Kickstarter A Viable Tool For Writers?

7 comments

It used to be that if you wanted to record an album or write a book, you had to beg your parents for money or get a job flipping burgers, just to keep the lights on and the booze flowing while you toiled at your art. 

That paradigm has shifted, thanks to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, where you can post a work-in-progress, request funding by enticing people with exclusives and rewards, and ultimately fund your dream without the indignity of filing out an application at the local Starbucks. 

It's like a public endowment for the arts. It democratizes the process; the people choose what they want to hear or see or read. Sounds cool, right? 

But the site and the process aren't without criticisms. Some people regard it as little more than digital panhandling, and Kickstarter has been accused of not policing its own back yard; allowing projects that never come to fruition, and not protecting customers when money disappears. 

Quick aside: Last night, on my commute home, I sat on the subway next a couple in their mid-30s. The guy was telling the girl about Kickstarter, and said they should figure out some way to get people to give them $10,000.

People like that certainly don't help. 

Good for writers

Kickstarter has been used--to great success--by a number of writers, including some friends of LitReactor. Christa Faust used it for her second Butch Fatale novel, and Craig Clevenger, in conjunction with Six Finger Films, sought funding to film a sequence from his upcoming novel.

LitReactor columnist Kelly Thompson just successfully funded her self-published novel (and she also wrote a great column about Kickstarter for comic books--check it out). 

I asked Faust why she decided to go with Kickstarter for this project. Here's what she said: 

If I were looking to publish my first novel, I would never think of trying something like Kickstarter. But if you're already established so your fans know they can count on you to deliver and people who are finding out about you for the first time can easily Google you and your professional track record, it makes a lot more sense. Especially for a small, niche pet project like my Butch Fatale series. I never had any illusions about making a six figure deal with a traditional publisher for this kind of sexy hardboiled lesbian private eye series. But I figured there might be just enough people crazy enough to help me make it happen. And they did.

Kickstarter even has a dedicated publishing category, where you can browse literary-minded projects, from proposals for self-published novels to anthologies and literary guides.

It makes sense, to crowdfund these kinds of thing. Anthologies have it tough--they're not cheap to produce, and it's hard to sustain a model where people are rarely, if ever, getting paid. (Not to say passion doesn't count, but sometimes real life rears its head and there's no stopping it.)

And it's nearly impossible to self-publish a novel or novella to any kind of professional standard without a cover designer and an editor. Those things don't come cheap.  

Ah, but...

Kickstarter gives life to products that may have died on the vine. But while the website offers opportunities to fund writing projects, that doesn't mean that all writing projects will get funded. 

Last month Kickstarter began posting stats for success rates on projects--and less than 32 percent of publishing-based projects actually reach their funding goal. The average failure rate is 41 percent, with publishing toward the bottom of the pack, only ahead of the technology category. (The most successful category is theater, at 64 percent).   

So what gives? This is the internet. Someone posted a video of a bus matron being taunted and the internet raised her $700,000

Well, it's hard to convince people to give you money. Just ask the panhandler who hit me up today so he could "buy a ticket to get back to New Jersey." (Why anyone would pay to go to Jersey is one thing; that he's been doing this for weeks is the real reason I don't pony up). 

Authenticity and name recognition help, as Faust points out. So do the prizes and exclusives you hand out to backers. Clevenger offered a six-fingered hand wire necklace, hand-made in Bolivia--that's several different shades of cool. 

Still, passion and cool prizes don't always seal the deal. 

Recently Andrew Galasetti was seeking money to hire an editor for his novel, To Breathe Free, which he planned to self-publish. The first time he tried to get the project off the ground, it timed out without getting fully funded, and if you don't meet your goal by the end of the fundraising period, none of the money gets paid out.

He re-started the campaign, and recently met his $2,000 goal. I asked him what lessons he learned from the process. 

My first big mistake was that my funding goal was too high with my first campaign. I was looking to raise funds to cover all of my initial costs. So what I did this second time around was to create a funding goal that would help offset some of my expenses but would require me to use my own personal savings to cover the other initial self-publishing costs.

The second mistake was not giving my campaign a long enough deadline. Kickstarter recommends 30 days so I set my first project at 31 days. This was not nearly enough time to reach out to potential supporters and media outlets. Unless you are launching the latest viral iPad accessory or have a massive following like Seth Godin, I recommend authors using Kickstarter to do more than 30 days. My second project had a deadline of the Kickstarter maximum of 60 days. And it will take me each of those days to reach the funding goal.

The third big mistake I made was focusing too much on reaching out to national media. I knew I needed to raise awareness and was impressed by the media attention that other Kickstarter projects were receiving. However, I realized that it’s best to focus on your family, friends, and readers. Connect with them. They will support you as soon as you launch your project, when your deadline fast approaches, and continue to support you even if your project fails.

Some sound advice. It takes a lot of work and promotion and goodwill and planning to get a project funded. 

But even with cool prizes and forethought and conservative estimates and name recognition, Kickstarter is burdened by some negative stigmas. 

Issues of perception

Asking for money is hard, in any context. Doing it on the internet is harder. 

Some people just don't like Kickstarter, saying that its "for-profit enterprises using the internet to essentially panhandle under the guise of social good." Or that it "takes the place of having a solid business and funding plan."

Kickstarter has also taken some heat, accused of not protecting backers when a project turns out to be exaggerated or outright false (Kickstarter argues that they're just a middle-man, and can't vet every single project on the site).

Some people are just plain fed up with the glut of projects that stall out. Tech-site Gizmodo pledged to stop writing about Kickstarter because of how many projects have little basis in reality.

Then there's people like this. Honestly, if someone has a compelling argument for how this is a real project, and not some clever idea they came up with to fund a vacation to Southern France, I'd love to hear it. 

What do you think? 

Personally, I've given to six Kickstarter projects. Seven, if you count the one my wife contributed to for a friend's album that was from both of us. I've gotten some cool swag, and the warm-n-fuzzies, knowing I helped bring a project to fruition that I really believed in.

On the other hand, I can understand the hesitation some people may feel. Giving money to anything on the internet is a bit of a gamble. 

What are your thoughts on Kickstarter, fellow writers? Is this something you'd use to fund a project? Got anything in the pipeline you'd like to get some backing on?

Readers--do you believe this is a good way to fund projects? Do you feel this gives you more of a choice on what kinds of things you get to read?

Oh, and, FYI, if you post your Kickstarter campaign in the comments without contributing to the discussion, it's getting deleted. 

Image of Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick - Double D Double Cross
Manufacturer:
Part Number:
Price:
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Andrew Galasetti's picture
Andrew Galasetti August 1, 2012 - 6:38am

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts Rob. I hope that it helps other writers considering Kickstarter.

-Andrew

TomorrowHill's picture
TomorrowHill from Newfoundland, Canada is reading your mind. You like Castlevania, don't you? August 1, 2012 - 8:06am

Hey Rob,

Awesome article! While it's true that a lot more people are attempting to use kickstarter as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme, there's definitely something to be said for being able to present your idea to a worldwide audience and letting people vote with their wallets. A couple months ago, I ran a successful kickstarter campaign for my upcoming YA series, Camp Myth (http://kck.st/JfqrpP) and as of now I'm only days away from the first volume being published. It's been a heck of a ride, but I learned a ton. If anyone else out there is looking to start a project, I'd love to add my $0.02 to the conversation.

First off, it's all about the visual presentation of the campaign page. This is especially important for a publishing project, but it's also much more difficult. I mean, you're pitching a bunch of words, right? Still, people are visual creatures, and a good image will sell your idea more than any block of text. Have a professional-looking cover front and center, or maybe some character concept art. Looking back, my first attempt at selling Camp Myth was a bust for a few reasons, with one being that I spent way too much time describing the project and not nearly enough time showing it. By the time I was able to add some art work, the damage had already been done. You need to make an awesome first impression that will last. And if you don't know an artist, hit up devientart and find one. There are some seriously talented people on that site, and a lot of them will be more than happy to give you a great deal on a piece or two.

Second, Make. A. Video. Seriously, it doesn't need to be amazing, it just needs to give people a feel for who you are and what you're doing. I shot mine with the help of my wife and her cell phone camera, and cut the whole thing together with Windows Movie Maker. It's goofy, sure, but I think it set the right tone, and it helped people connect with me a little better. In my opinion, a project without a video is dead in the water.

Next, it's all about promotion. Don't just sit back and wait for the money to roll in from strangers. Reading about some of the insane success stories, it's easy to see kickstarter as a giant tank of wallets just waiting to give you cash, but nothing could be further from the truth. Friends and family are a good start, but it's nowhere close to the endgame. Find people who like your subject matter and approach them. If you're a member of some forums, let people know what you're doing. If you're pitching a graphic novel and there's a comic book blog that you love to follow, email them and politely ask if they'd be interested in writing something about your project. Much like submitting work to agents, lots of people will turn you down, but a few will be more than happy to work with you. I met some awesome people who gave me fantastic coverage just because I asked nicely. You can't be afraid of putting yourself out there.

As for rewards, my advice would be two things. 1) Make them interesting - For example, I offered high-tiered backers the chance to design a character that would be illustrated and placed in all copies of the book, and had merit badges printed to go along with the summer camp theme. 2) Digital rewards are key - I offered a bunch of physical rewards and, while they've ultimately turned out great, they were a lot of additional work to put together, and increase shipping costs significantly. ebook copies, wallpapers, screensavers, audio files, or any types of digital extras are a zillion times easier to create and distribute.

Finally, make sure to keep your backers involved every step of the way, especially when your campaign has finished. Don't flood people with news every time you finish a chapter or anything, but an update every week will keep your project fresh in their minds, and let them know that you're still dedicated to providing them with a product. I gave people sneak peeks at artwork, showed off rewards, and generally just let everyone know that wheels were still in motion.       

Whew, didn't I just say that a block of text isn't a good idea? :) Sorry to have this run long, but those are the lessons I've learned over the course of my kickstarter experience. If you'd like to know more about Camp Myth #1, I'd love for you to check out the link at the top of this post. Look for the ebook version to hit virtual shelves near you within the next week!

-Chris- 

Thomas Derry's picture
Thomas Derry from Bonanza, Colorado is reading Rand McNally World Atlas August 1, 2012 - 7:53am

Before I read your article, I knew very little about KS, other than in relation to tech-type projects. I think like any tool, it can be used for the sublime or the ridiculous. If someone is sincere about what they're doing (and all writers are sincere [ha ha]), then why not?

Francis Gabriel Concepcion's picture
Francis Gabriel... August 2, 2012 - 7:36pm

In my opinion, I would think it best to have your project done or at least halfway done by the time you launch a kickstarter project. There's something about people seeing a part of the finished product that helps prove that you're serious about finishing it.

Ray Richards's picture
Ray Richards from Michigan and Iowa is reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson August 2, 2012 - 7:42pm

A drawback to kickstarter, that I saw, was the feedback and backer information. Somewhere areound weekly updates, gifts, promotional videos, and answering questions takes up a lot of time. I've mainly heard about Kickstarter used for videogames but a lot of smaller bussnesses don't count it as an option because they would have to have a worker devoted to updating the kickstarter. It would just be another distraction.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 August 14, 2012 - 4:18pm

Great piece Rob!

Yes, like Francis, I would be very skeptical about funding a book that wasn't written yet. I'm willing to wait for editing (etc) but I need to know you've gotten to the end. Maybe that's just because we writers are cynical and know how hard it can be to get to the end? 

I also find myself bristling a bit at the idea of "paying for you to write your book" as I sometimes see it pitched on Kickstarter - and again, that's probably me being all "nobody paid me to write my books...I did them when I was exhuasted after a long day of work!" - oddly I don't feel quite the same about comics. Maybe because I know how much longer the art takes? I'm not sure, it's a weird disconnect for me. Regardless, I've backed many comics and graphic novels that are not yet finished and I've never backed any prose that isn't complete. 

All that said, I'm obviously a fan, and though it's been a tremendous amount of work, I have been incredibly lucky thus far and Kickstarter has brought me a huge opportunity to get my book out there after struggling to find a home for a "non-traditional" book.

Like I said in my piece a few weeks ago, I do think we're going to suffer from burnout - too many people asking too much from too many friends/family/colleagues/etc. but I do think it's a great alternative that allows people to vote with their dollars in the right circumstances and I think some form of this will be around for a long time to come.

 

Lydia Sherrer's picture
Lydia Sherrer December 15, 2015 - 7:57pm

This all seems like some really good advice! I'm a debut indie author thinking about launching a kickstarter to help fund publishing for my first two books, both coming out at the same time. The books are already written and going through editing right now. I'd really like to use a kickstarter, not to pay me to write the book, but to help fund an amazing launch that will get my fans so much more than just the minimum I can afford from my meager savings. I also hear its a good way to pre-sell a book. I have funded several friend's book or game kickstarters and have LOVED doing it, loved being involved and supporting them. I was super surprised when I mentioned it on a forum and some people made nasty comments about it. I didn't know it had such a negative stereotype for some people. I guess since I haven't been burned, I have no negative thoughts toward it.

Thanks Chris for all that amazing advice you contributed, I'll take all the help I can get!